Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trust deficit taxing Indonesia-Australia relations

Australia is one of Indonesia’s closest neighbors. However, the two countries differ markedly in terms of geography, history, race, values and norms.

To start with, Indonesia is an archipelagic state that is sandwiched between two continents, Asia and Australia, and two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific.

Indonesians used to host seafarers coming from and going through these two continents and two oceans. Indonesia slowly developed an archipelagic mentality, welcoming people from all around the world, despite already being home to around 350 ethnicities.

On the other hand, Australia is a continental country, far “down under”. In the past, it really required a special effort to land on Australian shores. This certainly led to the formation of a continental mentality, which some pundits sometimes mistakenly identify as “alien-fear”.

Indonesia emerged and bonded together as a nation out of extreme exploitation by western powers, notably the Dutch, and later by eastern power Japan. Australia went through a far different trajectory to become an independent country under commonwealth traditions.

Indonesia struggled to free itself from the colonial powers that grossly siphoned off its natural resources. This explains why nationalism has been deeply rooted in the psyche of the nation.

Indonesian cultures, norms and values are basically Eastern-based. Islam notably plays a significant role as around 80 percent of the country’s population professes Islam as its religion. On the contrary, Australia is Western-based with Christianity and European traditions being key in molding its values, norms and outlook.

Politically, Indonesia tends to take a neutral stance vis-à-vis regional and global issues. Australia cemented a number of alliances — military or otherwise — as dictated by its national interests.

In short, Indonesia and Australia are oceans apart in terms of political and sociocultural fabric, orientation and inclination. However, we share common things upon which our relations should be based, deepened and widened.

First and foremost, we share the same region, Asia and the Pacific. Indonesia cannot chase Australia away from this commonly shared region, nor can Australia expel Indonesia. Second, both are democracies, governed democratically by elected leaders. Government policies have therefore to be publicly debated and endorsed by parliament. Gone are the days when only one leader made decisions in Indonesia.

The system is still far from perfect, but is nonetheless functional.

Differences should not deter us from cooperating to provide our respective citizens with a strong sense of stability while mutually enjoying the prosperity presented by the Asian Century.

The impasse with which Indonesia and Australia are currently confronted arguably resulted from a skin-deep understanding of the countries’ respective social fabrics, providing the opportunity for mistrust to mushroom. This trust deficit has to be admitted and hence confronted rigorously by both.

The issues of boat people, drug convict Schapelle Corby being granted parole and spying thanks to leakages by Edward Snowden, will be solved once both countries fully understand each other in a genuine and in-depth manner.

Together with other nations, both countries have always excelled in sealing deals to tackle those symptoms. A series of politically and legally binding commitments have therefore been produced.

Reality sinks in immediately, however, when it comes to their implementation.

Take the Bali Process, meant to deal with boat people. There are no practical measures put in place to really curb this perennial problem, which involves the countries that send, provide transit points for and receive migrants. As a result, Indonesia continues to serve as transit country, often trying to unilaterally address the issue, such as by revoking the visa exemption previously extended to Iranians.

Some of these migrants allegedly smuggled drugs into Indonesia to be sold to finance their trips to Australia, which is extremely dangerous, particularly to Indonesia’s future.

These boat people coming, among others, from countries in the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia also create social problems. One only needs to go to West Java’s Puncak mountain resort area to witness some of the negative impacts on locals.

Many such migrants exploit the Indonesian archipelagic mentality of welcoming outsiders.

No doubt Indonesia wants this exploitation to stop, but it can only do so if and when all countries concerned get involved, as unilateral action can only address the symptoms, not the root cause.

One should now wonder whether it is appropriate to gauge the relationship between Indonesia and Australia by using Corby, Snowden, or boat people as a yardstick. It should not and cannot be appropriate, as our national interests far exceed those issues. Moreover, we share the same future. To make it brighter, the two countries need to work jointly to help promote regional stability and prosperity.

One should not underestimate their ability to do so, Indonesia being the world’s fourth most populous nation and 15th biggest economy, and Australia being one of the regional centers of excellence.

It is against this strategic backdrop that we should rapidly go beyond Snowden, Corby, or boat people. Sending the Indonesian
Ambassador back with a clear mandate to resolve the issue at hand is certainly an excellent step in that direction.

Trust deficit has heavily taxed the relationship between the neighbors. Extra efforts need to be taken to significantly improve it.

It can no longer be tolerated.

It can only be addressed by first, revamping Indonesian studies in Australian universities, halted by John Howard’s government and partly revived by Kevin Rudd’s. Indonesians still see Australia as a favorite destination for study.

Thousands of our students currently study across Australia, and China is catching up, hosting around 17,000 Indonesian students. Yet Australia sends only a few to Indonesia, its travel warning being one of the impediments.

Second, promoting more second-track diplomacy, involving community leaders, public opinion molders, concerned citizens, journalists and religious leaders, to name but
a few.

Third, taking concrete actions — as a matter of follow-up — on all our bilateral and regional commitments, especially on issues that attract public attention, before the media sets the tone (megaphone diplomacy).

Fourth, establishing “direct hotline communication channels” connecting top leaders of the two countries, to be employed during crises to speedily contain contentious bilateral issues and resolve them accordingly.


By Imron Cotan, former Indonesia ambassador to Australia and was ambassador to China and Mongolia. The article is an abridged version of his presentation at the Indonesia–Australia Senior Advisory Group in Jakarta on March 20, 2014.

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